Chapter 13: Preparations for the Offensive
AS these raids were taking place, the New Zealand Division was settling in its rest area along a stretch of the coast between El Hammam and Burg el Arab, some 25 to 30 miles to the east of El Alamein. All the guns and such vehicles as were unwanted for the daily servicing of the Division were collected in an area known as ‘Swordfish’, some 15 miles inland, under pickets who were relieved at short intervals to allow all men to share in the amenities of the rest area.
At the rest area the men were housed in bivouac tents, dug in against air attack, along a stretch of sand dunes between the main road and the coast. Although the extreme heat of the summer was already showing signs of abating, the midday sun encouraged sea-bathing. On parts of this coastline there was a dangerous undertow, and in spite of surf patrols two men were drowned. Unit and YMCA canteens were quickly set up in the rest area, fresh food and an increased water ration supplied, worn clothing and equipment replaced and everything done to revive health and spirits. The Kiwi Concert Party performed twice a day from a portable stage, while 5 and 6 Brigade bands, the Base band and the Maadi Camp pipe band toured the area, giving concerts not only to New Zealanders but to all the troops there. The gathering at any one entertainment was limited to 400 men under anti-aircraft protection, but although enemy aircraft were occasionally seen, no bombs fell on the rest area. Drafts of men sent off on the four-day leave scheme started in the New Zealand Box were increased and leave trucks took parties each day into Alexandria to enjoy the cinemas and other civilian luxuries there.
General Freyberg took this opportunity to drive down to the New Zealand base camp at Maadi to deal with a back-log of administrative affairs of 2 NZEF, only to be immediately presented
with the problem of discipline among the men on leave in Cairo and Alexandria. Aware that the congregation of men freshly released from the rigours of the front line would lead to a certain amount of riotous behaviour, he tried to reduce the paper war that would inevitably follow by ringing the headquarters of British Troops in Egypt ‘to anticipate attack from that quarter re behaviour of tps on leave – six attacked British for no (?) reason – six were gaoled for breaking windows – 60 raided the Berka. Think my comments stopped letter and have agreed to send in more picquets’.1 A record number of cases of bad behaviour was in fact reported in this week, most of the incidents attributable to high spirits and alcohol in combination, but often aggravated by the rapacious habits of the Cairene shopkeepers and café proprietors allied to maladroit action by base officers and military police. Freyberg himself, on an unannounced inspection of the beer bar of the New Zealand Club in Cairo, quickly abandoned any intention of speaking to the men as he realised that his presence alone created a difficult situation, and that any attempt at advice or admonition would be rashly inopportune.
Although the troops’ behaviour improved after this, Freyberg’s endeavours to get the worst of the disturbances buried quickly and decently were to some extent frustrated by a fellow New Zealander who, serving in the British Army on the Cairo administration, apparently felt personally implicated and would not let the matter drop. A few days later the General received a letter from his officer in charge of 2 NZEF administration, Brigadier Stevens,2 in the following terms:–
I very much regret that [this officer] has apparently been communicating with you at great length about the disturbances in Cairo last week. I am seeing him about this as I am convinced that, regrettable though they were, they were no worse than might have been expected. In any case, every incident that happens is with him verging on a disaster and needs to be looked at from that angle.3
With the Division out of the line, Freyberg was able to make some arrangements for the receipt of the reinforcement draft which he was then expecting to be despatched from New Zealand at any moment. He ordered 18 Battalion to return to its own 4 Brigade at Maadi, its place in 6 Brigade being taken by 24 Battalion, which had now reorganised after its losses in the El Mreir action in July. He also called on 4 Brigade to provide a draft of 600 men, drawn equally from its three battalions, to reinforce 5 and 6 Brigades. Meanwhile 4 Brigade was to press ahead with its
conversion to armour, prepared to absorb the reinforcement tank battalion when it arrived. Though its reinforcement was delayed until the next year, this brigade was officially renamed on 1 October 4 New Zealand Armoured Brigade, of 18, 19 and 20 Armoured Regiments.
A vexatious problem with which Freyberg dealt at this time concerned a long debated proposal for the return of ‘undesirables’. As in most armies, 2 NZEF had within its ranks a group of men who for various reasons, principally criminal tendencies and inability to submit to military discipline, came into the category of ‘undesirables’ in that they not only bred unnecessary work for those administering military law but also created a bad influence and a core of irresponsibility in whatever unit they were placed. Some of these men had in fact spent most of their time in the Middle East in periods of absence without leave followed by periods of detention for the crime. Though the shipping of such men back to New Zealand might encourage others to misbehave with the sole intent of being similarly sent home, senior officers in the Division had gradually come round to the opinion that the benefits gained by getting rid of the transgressors would override all other considerations. Freyberg now agreed to a formula put forward by his staff classifying the undesirables, of whom certain classes would be sent back to New Zealand as soon as passages were available.
Another point he dealt with about this time was the matter of waste and salvage. With the vast amount of material pouring in to the Middle East, the need for economy in small details no longer appeared to the ordinary soldier as greatly important. No one walked if a vehicle was handy, yet the vastly increased supply of trucks was already putting a strain on the stocks of tyres available, while water and petrol tins, urgently needed for building up the dumps for the offensive, were likely to be carelessly discarded when empty. The whole of the desert from the Eighth Army’s front line to the rear was littered with broken, worn or discarded material, from brass cartridge cases and bivouac tents to partially destroyed trucks, much of which could profitably be used by the Middle East workshops. Freyberg made a directive from General Alexander the basis for a personal plea to his men and, as had happened before, they responded with a genuine effort to cut down waste and collect salvage for despatch to the rear.
At this time Freyberg recorded a message to be broadcast in New Zealand on Christmas Day. In it he spoke of ‘three years of sunbaked earth, sandstorms and flies’ and expressed the hope that this might be ‘the last Christmas we are away from our homes’.4
On 18 September the Division’s rest period ceased, the bivouac areas were cleaned up, and the troops became mobile once more. Picking up surplus transport, field guns and other impedimenta at the ‘Swordfish’ area, the units assembled next day in the open desert to the west of Wadi Natrun and 40 miles inland from the coast. Here the British 9 Armoured Brigade, mounted mainly in the new Sherman tanks, came under the Division’s direct command. General Freyberg by this time had been made aware of the general principles of the task which the Army Commander expected the Division to undertake in the forthcoming offensive, and he directed a reconnaissance of a portion of the desert which, in distances and topographical details, bore some resemblance to the sector in the line where the Division’s task lay. The known enemy defences facing this sector, plotted from ground and air reconnaissance, were reproduced in the training area by token weapon pits, wire, and unfused mines. For the first four days, while the ground was being prepared and plans studied, the units carried out training in route-marching, firing, and movement at night. On 24 September the divisional exercise commenced with a move of about ten miles in a south-easterly direction to an assembly area, where headquarters were set up, communications established, and supporting troops allocated to the three brigades to put them on a battle footing. In the afternoon Freyberg held a conference of brigade and unit commanders to explain the general intention and method of the exercise, and before dusk men of the Provost Corps set out to mark with lights two routes to a deployment area some 14 miles further west. At 8.30 p.m. the Division, fully motorised and led by 5 Brigade on the right-hand route and 6 Brigade on the left, set off along the lines of lights. Most of the vehicles had reached the deployment area by midnight but numerous stragglers, many of them overladen or undesertworthy trucks caught in soft sand on the right-hand route, were still creeping in at dawn, and in an unusual and heavy fog had difficulty in finding their units, which were well dispersed against air attack.
In the afternoon of the 25th Freyberg held a staff conference, after which operation orders were written under battle conditions. The plan entailed a movement that night by one battalion of each brigade to a start line while the other two battalions followed up. Everyone was to be dug in before dawn, transport sent away or dispersed, and everything done so that during daylight of the 26th the concentration and preparations would be unnoticeable from the air. The approach march went through as planned, lit by the September full moon, and the troops lay concealed throughout the
day. At 10 p.m. on the 26th, the men of the leading battalions rose from their trenches and set off for the first objective, followed by sapper parties who cleared lanes in the dummy minefields and marked the gaps for the support weapons and tanks. The other four battalions then passed through the leading troops and occupied the final objective, a distance of 5800 yards from the start line. Behind the infantry came the tanks of 9 Armoured Brigade, the whole force taking up positions against dawn counter-attack. Throughout the exercise everything possible was done to simulate the conditions and methods expected for the actual operation. Tracer from Bofors guns was fired to mark the boundary between the two infantry brigades, 25-pounder tracer marked both flanks of the divisional area, and the field regiments fired a token live barrage ahead of the advancing infantry. The tanks and other vehicles needed in the action were sent forward in groupings designed to prevent congestion and confusion, communications by radio and line were established from front to rear, while behind the battle area a complete replenishment system was set up. It was in fact the most realistic exercise the Division had attempted. In spite of the use of much live ammunition and other explosives, only two men were injured.
After dawn the tanks and anti-tank guns had a live shoot against targets set out ahead of the objective to represent enemy tanks in a counter-attack. When it was all over, Freyberg had officers and senior NCOs gather on the objective so that he could point out some of the immediately obvious failings revealed by the exercise. Too many of the men had shown signs of physical distress during the march across the desert, and Freyberg ordered that fitness and care of the feet should be seen to. He also mentioned that, as he moved around the men during the exercise, he had found several who had been insufficiently instructed in, and thus failed to understand, their particular tasks. During the period of concealment before the assault, both men and vehicles had moved about in the open in unnecessarily large numbers, giving evidence that junior officers and NCOs did not appreciate the principle of the exercise and failed to keep control. Much of Freyberg’s comment was based on the fault common to all large-scale manoeuvring, a fault that commanders were only now beginning to admit. Though there was no real indiscipline, the majority of the men, with an incomplete understanding of the purposes behind the marching and digging and living on hard rations, found manoeuvres of this nature rather tedious. They became unwilling to play the game according to the ill-understood rules and often welcomed, even to the extent of encouraging, periods of apparent chaos to alleviate their feelings.
Freyberg was aware of all this and had welcomed Montgomery’s ruling that the troops should be kept well informed, but in this exercise there were two factors which limited the amount of information that could be disclosed. One was the necessary secrecy that had to be kept in an exercise shortly to be put into practice against the enemy. The second, and in this instance possibly the principal factor, was the unconscious desire of many officers and NCOs to sustain the importance of their ranks by appearing to be among the few selected to enter the esoteric mysteries of the higher command. Allied to plain inability to pass on information correctly, this influence caused the information issued from above to lose coherence as it gained in detail until, by the time it reached the lowest ranks, the purposes of the exercise had been lost in such details as the need for daily shaving and whether greatcoats should be carried or not. Lack of knowledge engendered lack of cooperation, and this in turn made it doubly hard for those of the staff studying the exercise to pick the faults that might appear in actual battle.
After Freyberg’s talk to the officers and NCOs, a more detailed examination of the exercise was held at Divisional Headquarters on 8 October. Points then raised included the need for greater control of all traffic movement, and here again was stressed the importance of detailed knowledge of plans by officers and NCOs so that they could take their share in directing traffic and sorting out tangles. Observers reporting on concealment advised that the ban on smoking at night would have to be rigidly enforced and vehicle windscreens shielded to eliminate the reflection of moonlight. Other defects were noted in communications, especially those to the rear for replenishment of supplies.
But the greatest weakness demonstrated by the exercise had been in the employment of 9 Armoured Brigade. This was the first opportunity the attached brigade had had of integrating its communications and services with those of the infantry. Naturally, several differences in method and some misunderstandings appeared, but other faults lay deeper and Freyberg felt that considerably more collective training would have to be undertaken before the tanks and infantry could work as one.
The exercise had been watched by a number of senior officers from Eighth Army, including Major-General Lumsden of 10 Corps and Lieutenant-General Leese, who had assumed command of 30 Corps from Major-General Ramsden on 12 September. At the completion of the main manoeuvres, the Division took up desert formation to return to the ‘Swordfish’ training area, leaving 9 Armoured Brigade and 4 Field Regiment to do some further
exercises. On the night of the 28th, Freyberg held a dinner in Alexandria for a selected group of officers from the Division and the armoured brigade in order to break down reserves and promote a spirit of closer understanding. The last two days of September were devoted to rehearsals of ceremonial parades for inspection by the Army Commander, arranged according to a note in Freyberg’s diary to show that ‘we are not a ragtail [ sic] and bobtail Army’.5 To prevent the concentration of troops from attracting attention from the air, the two infantry brigades held their parades in the morning of the 30th, while the Artillery, Divisional Cavalry and the Machine Gun Battalion held a combined parade in the afternoon, followed by that of 9 Armoured Brigade. General Montgomery took the opportunity to present a number of awards won in recent battles, including the Victoria Cross to Sergeant Keith Elliott6 of 22 Battalion.
While the New Zealand Division was on its training exercises the Alamein front was relatively quiescent. On 18 September 9 Australian Division, after careful preparations, made a ‘bloodless advance’ for about a mile and a half on its landward flank and thus straightened an inward curve made by earlier advances towards Tell el Eisa. The area gained, previously unoccupied and dominated by artillery fire by day and a stalking ground for patrols at night, brought the advantage of a simpler start line and shorter approach for the forthcoming offensive. Enemy reaction was negligible, partly because of the well prepared plan and lack of any aggressive fire support and partly because the Axis troops, fully occupied with strengthening the line they held, saw no point in driving the Australians back and occupying the ground themselves.
Another attempt, this time in the southern sector, was far less successful. On taking over the New Zealand Box, 44 Division had extended the defences southwards into the area over which 5 New Zealand Brigade had advanced in Operation BERESFORD, and had dug defences on the north-eastern and eastern edges of the Munassib Depression. The commander of 13 Corps decided that, if dominating enemy positions on the western and south-western escarpments could be occupied, the floor of the depression would make a valuable deployment area for artillery. In a heavy morning mist on the 30th, troops of 44 Division advanced through the depression under massive artillery cover and supported by tanks of
4 Light Armoured Brigade. The right-flank objective was gained against little direct opposition, but the troops on the left disintegrated against a strongpoint held by Italians of Folgore Division backed by men of Ramcke Brigade, all paratroops and among the best infantry in the Panzer Army. Attempts by 44 Division to renew the assault and relieve the survivors were delayed by a Stuka attack and other disorganisation caused by inexperience, and on the morning of 1 October General Horrocks called a halt on the small gains made. On the enemy side, an immediate counter-attack fell into some confusion, first when Italian infantry and German tanks failed to ‘marry up’, and later when supporting Stukas were forced by British fighters to jettison their bombs on the Axis lines. Against the weight of artillery and air support the British were employing, the counter-attack was finally abandoned on the excuse that the small amount of ground lost was not worth regaining. The defence put up by the Italian parachutists brought considerable praise from the Germans, but at the same time the Panzer Army commander issued a strongly worded and ominous note on indiscriminate artillery fire: ‘This resulted in a large amount of ammunition being fired into areas in which there was no enemy. With the present ammunition situation this borders on a crime.’7 Axis casualties from this operation were relatively light but 13 Corps lost 121 men wounded and 229 killed or missing, of whom the Axis claimed approximately 200 as prisoners.
Since the halt on the Alamein line, Field Marshal Rommel’s health had been gradually deteriorating. Even before the Alam Halfa battle it had been giving concern to his staff and medical adviser and, once the battle simmered down, he was persuaded to take a rest cure in Germany. With few illusions that his army under existing conditions would ever be able to take the offensive, and with a shrewd guess that the British would not be ready for active operations until at least the October moon, he decided to take the opportunity of putting the African situation clearly before his superiors. Before leaving he prepared elaborate plans for complete defence works across the whole of the Alamein front and for the deployment of troops in the line and in reserve, with major deadlines for completion of the plans by the middle of October. On 21 September he handed over command of the Panzer Army of Africa to his relief, General Stumme, who continued the plans without major alteration.
The system of defence worked out by the Panzer Army’s engineers under Rommel’s orders was formidable. The outer edge of the defences in the north followed the wire and minefields laid down when the battle stopped at the Alamein line and, further south, the new defences constructed during and after the Alam Halfa battle, when the old line ending at the Qattara Box was extended south-eastwards to Munassib and then, following the British minefields, southwards to Himeimat. South of Himeimat a continuous minefield was planned to meet the escarpment of the Qattara Depression but was never completed.
This outer edge of the defences was to be wired and mined throughout to a thickness of 500 to 1000 metres according to the terrain and was to be furnished with weapon pits for infantry manning light weapons. Directly to the rear of this outer belt there was to be an empty zone one to two kilometres thick, backed by another mined strip some two kilometres deep. Each infantry battalion in defence was to be allotted a sector with a front of one and a half kilometres and running the full depth from the outer belt to the rear, that is, up to five kilometres. One company only, set out in section strongpoints, was to hold the battle outposts while the rest of the battalion, with its heavy mortars, anti-tank guns and similar support weapons, occupied the second, or main, belt. At night the outposts were to be reinforced from the rear and given watchdogs to guard against surprise attack.
Plans of the defences prepared by the German engineers early in October indicate that initially lateral or flanking fields were to be laid between the outpost and main belts to cut the front into sectors three kilometres wide, each sector accommodating two battalions. The design of each lateral field was that of a narrow isosceles triangle, its apex resting on the front line. It was intended that the base and centre portion of each triangle should be left clear of obstacles to provide a route to the outposts for counter-attacking forces. Although the master plan was followed along much of the front, there were many local variations caused by the lie of the ground, shortages of engineers and equipment, and lack of enough infantry to man the whole front.
For their system of defence the Germans used the term ‘mine gardens’, likening the open areas to gardens surrounded by hedges or borders of mines. The underlying principle was that, in the event of a British breakthrough at any particular point, the attacking forces would be halted by the main defence line and, hemmed
in by the lateral fields, would be dealt with by fire and counter-attack in the open areas. Against a collapse of a portion of the main line, further defences were planned in the rear, including thick east-west laterals to guard against turning movements.
The extent of the defences can be gauged by the number of mines laid, some 445,358 of all types according to an estimate made by the German engineers. Over half these were British mines, either lifted from existing fields and relaid or taken from dumps captured in earlier campaigns. The majority were anti-tank mines, but some thousands of German anti-personnel ‘S’ type mines were laid thickly in the forward defences. The Axis sappers also made much use of trip-wires set a few inches above ground and attached to ‘push-pull’ igniters, which would explode mines or other explosives by either increase or release of tension on the wire. Where the sappers had time to add finishing touches to their work, they placed captured British shells of large calibre and aircraft bombs in the minefields, set in such a way that they could be electrically detonated by men in the defence posts, or by trip-wires or the explosion of nearby mines.
Mainly through photographic reconnaissance from the air, Eighth Army headquarters soon recognised that the Axis engineers were working to a pattern so that, by early October, it was able to issue a description of the defence works from the coast to as far south as Deir el Shein. At this time the laterals dividing the sectors in the north were not fully completed, so that the air photographs revealed the continuous lines of the forward and main minefield belts, with the open space in between cut into large sections by the main laterals. The Eighth Army intelligence staff correctly surmised from what was known of the layout of the Axis artillery and anti-tank guns the purpose of the open spaces or ‘hollows’. In the extreme north, between the end of the line on the sea at Mersa el Hamra and Sidi Abd el Rahman, the garden pattern did not show out clearly. Here the defences of the sand dunes and the coastal road and railway had evolved under the Australian assaults in July in a rather shapeless form, in which however three main defence lines could be identified enclosing some irregularly grouped open spaces.
Immediately south of Tell el Eisa the pattern showed out clearly, with four hollows between two belts of mines in the relatively level stretch as far as Deir el Dhib. Around the El Shein and El Mreir depressions the pattern became confused among the old defences and the broken terrain, to reappear in outline along the pipeline as far as the Qattara Box, with the box itself showing as a formidable strongpoint. To the south of the box British interpretation was
unable to identify the pattern and assumed that the defence here relied on strongpoints in the new line backed by the positions held through Kalakh, Khadim and Taqa before the Alam Halfa advance. This assumption was partially correct for, although the double line of mines was in fact laid as far as Himeimat with the existing British-laid fields adapted to fit in, the fields were very thin in places, while the troops available were insufficient to man more than the tactically valuable areas in strongpoints. It was,
however, the Panzer Army’s intention to man the whole front as strongly as in the north as and when troops became available, and even to continue the mine gardens south from Himeimat.
British reconnaissance had also quickly picked up traces of a massive minefield running west from the vicinity of Deir el Dhib. This work, known to the Axis as the Qatani field, was eventually extended to the Rahman Track and then southwards along the track, a total distance of over 20 miles, and was intended to insulate the northern sector from the southern. As the panzer formations of Africa Corps would be closely concerned with any manoeuvring and fighting in the rear, the Qatani work was made the Corps’ responsibility, and such was their engineers’ enthusiasm for enlarging and improving the minefield that they had to be restrained from cornering the Panzer Army’s supply of mines.
The only other major defences to the rear were those along the coast, but any clear appreciation of them was difficult to obtain by aerial reconnaissance as the area along the road and railway from Rahman to Matruh was thickly occupied by the rear services of the Axis, whose camps, transport parks, dumps, and defence works were hard to distinguish among the multitudinous traces of occupation left behind from previous campaigns.
Although the Middle East Joint Intelligence Committee in September considered that the Panzer Army might be strong enough to launch an offensive in November, or even to try a spoiling attack earlier, enemy records carry no definite information of proposed offensive operations. Neither war diaries nor reports by the Axis commanders mention even a vague target date for the resumption of the drive for the Canal. Rather, there is in some of the records a faint flavour of fatalism as if the turn of the tide had been perceived. Most of the senior German commanders, Rommel and Kesselring in particular, must have been aware that little was likely to be achieved in North Africa so long as the attention of the German High Command was concentrated on Russia.
Rommel left no clear record that he expected the Eighth Army’s offensive to take any particular course. In The Rommel Papers his statements imply that he was anticipating a battle of material and attrition similar in fact to that laid on by Montgomery, and he made the comment, ‘In this form of action the full value of the excellent Australian and New Zealand infantry would be realised and the British artillery would have its effect’.8
It is very doubtful, however, if Rommel saw the issues and results clearly before the battle. His intelligence staff had in fact practically discounted the value of the New Zealand Division after Alam Halfa, reporting it weak and low in morale, and not even troubling to set its disposition clearly within the Eighth Army.
The true expectations of both Rommel and the Panzer Army must be sought in the records of plans and actions prior to the battle. Here the plan of defence, the positioning of front-line troops and reserves, and several minor instructions, all indicate that the British offensive was expected to take the conventional pattern of a breakthrough and outflanking movement in the southern half of the line. In an intelligence summary issued by the Panzer Army on 10 October,9 a summary which must have borne at least an echo of Rommel’s thinking, British reconnaissance activity in the south was used as evidence that the main thrust was likely to come somewhere on the front to the south of Ruweisat Ridge, with the possibility of an assault along the coastal road, either in conjunction with the outflanking movement, as an alternative, or as a diversion. That this was the generally held opinion is borne out by the method of work on the defences. The mining of the southern sector and of the Qatani field were given priority by Rommel before he left in September, but lost this priority to the northern sector early in October. The reason for this was that the distance from the coastal supply line, the shortage of transport and petrol and the shortage of infantry, precluded the southern front from ever being made impregnable. The defence there was intended to absorb and weaken the impetus of a British attack, after which the line would swing back, hinged on the El Mreir or El Dhib area, on to the massive Qatani minefield, while the armoured and mobile troops operated in the open desert to the west and covered the coastal supply line. A second line of defence in the area of the Fuka escarpment was considered but little preparation was made to develop it, and it can only be assumed that the Panzer Army did not envisage a retreat there unless it could do so sufficiently intact and with time to spare to dig itself in. That this was the general plan is supported by Rommel’s reaction when, on returning to Africa, he found that Montgomery’s tactics had combined with Panzer Army’s petrol shortage to upset his preconception of the way the battle would be fought.
Following this policy, the Panzer Army concentrated its efforts from the end of the first week in October on making the northern half of the front, from the coast to El Mreir, as impregnable as
possible. The intelligence summary quoted above carries the note, ‘There are several contradictory reports to hand regarding the date of the enemy offensive. The forward move of the attacking troops and artillery will take at least one or two days, and therefore our troops cannot be taken by surprise if they keep their eyes open and take every opportunity to observe the enemy.’
The Panzer Army’s estimate of the Eighth Army’s intention was at least soundly based. The previous attacks in the Alamein line had been made either in the vicinity of Ruweisat Ridge or in the coastal sector and all had followed a similar pattern: an initial infantry advance whose success had been backed up so slowly and hesitantly that the defence had been given time to concentrate reserves at the point of penetration and ‘seal off the breach’. Only in the coastal sector had the Eighth Army been able to hold a gain of ground. In the two definite offensive actions during the Alam Halfa battle, the attacks by the Australian and New Zealand divisions, the British methods, as seen from the enemy side of the hill, had remained unchanged in principle; in both, an infantry advance had been allowed to peter out before being followed up by armour, while elsewhere in this battle the general caution and apparently slow reaction gave little hint that the British tactics were likely to change radically. Thus the Axis theory was that, so long as the expected increase in the Eighth Army’s strength was countered by a corresponding increase in the strength of the defences, the Panzer Army could rely on its speedy response to danger and the slow reaction of the British to exploit success. In all the comments in the Axis records known to have been made before 23 October, this theory, often seemingly with a touch of complacency, is evident.
The Panzer Army commanders and staff were anticipating an attack in the full-moon period in the second half of October, but were confident that the assembly and concentration of the British forces would be observed over a period of two to four days before the offensive opened. A senior staff officer, Colonel Liss of the German War Ministry, after visiting the front on the day of 23 October, gave it as the Ministry’s opinion that there was no danger of a major attack in the near future.10
Had the Axis commanders been aware, as several later claimed, that the odds were heavily stacked against them, it is strange that they did not develop their intelligence services more fully in order to gain every item of information that might offer them some advantage in the coming battle. Yet just as before Alam Halfa they failed to reconnoitre the southern minefields carefully, so at
Alamein they remained preoccupied with their own work on the defences and their supply problems, and were seemingly content with such scraps of information as fortuitously came their way.
The direct approach to information on the forces facing them, by means of fighting patrols and similar operations, was not used to any extent, and even reconnaissance patrolling was sketchy compared to the Eighth Army’s efforts. Some recognition of this brought an order early in October for more vigorous patrols with both German and Italian tanks in support, but such efforts were rare. ‘The value of [armoured patrols] is very debatable, particularly in view of the high petrol consumption of about 600 litres per patrol.’11
Air observation, on which the Axis had earlier relied for most information of immediate value, was proving progressively more difficult and hazardous against the superiority of the Allied air forces. High-level, or stratospheric, reconnaissance was attempted by Ju.86 aircraft equipped to fly above the British fighters’ ceiling, but was only carried out about once a week, usually over the Suez roadstead. With stripped-down Spitfires flown by specially trained pilots, the Royal Air Force made these flights unprofitable and the last known occurred on 15 September.
Planned low-level reconnaissance, similar to that carried out by the Allied air forces, was impossible in face of superior fighter cover, so that the Axis planes could attempt no more than hasty and irregular sorties when the opposing fighter patrols were engaged elsewhere. Aerial observation under such conditions could not hope to do more than bring a general picture of shipping and major transport movement. It was quite unable to detect details, such as the difference between genuine and dummy trucks and guns, which would have been of immediate value to the ground commanders. In contrast, the Desert Air Force, in 208 Squadron alone, maintained twenty-four aircraft solely engaged in mapping a complete aerial mosaic of the Axis positions.
Another of the Axis sources of information, the wireless intercept services operated by both Germans and Italians, could hardly have failed to gather items which would have been of value when examined in the context of other intelligence. The enemy records mention agents’ reports from civilian sources in Egypt as well as interrogation of deserters and prisoners taken on patrol, but neither these nor intercept seem, by themselves, to have been able to pierce the tight security imposed by Montgomery.
2 See R.A.F. Middle East Review, Vol. I, pp. 85, 99. [??]
As early as 1 October the intelligence officer of 15 Panzer Division wrote an appreciation in which the sector of attack, the British tactics, and the use of camouflage and deception were foretold with some accuracy. His choice of the sector lay solely in the fact that his division’s role covered that part of the line and was therefore accidental, but otherwise he was at fault in only two points: he expected the British to spend a day in preparations which could be observed and recognised, followed by an infantry advance in the late afternoon to allow a full night for mine clearance, and the armoured advance at first light next morning. He did not attempt to foretell the date, and later divisional records, probably made by the same officer, comment on the scanty information and poor observation reports available, especially the air reconnaissance which was ‘as always of doubtful value and lacked clearness’ and ‘gave no preliminary indication when or where the offensive might come’.12 On the other hand 21 Panzer Division, not involved in the main assault and thus clear of any charges of unpreparedness, claimed that the British preparations were seen and the offensive forecast to the day, though expected on the southern sector. Written after the event, this claim is interesting only for its touch of Teutonic self-righteousness.13
The only known warning the Panzer Army received of the opening date of the battle came in an Italian naval intelligence message of 22 October, which warned that major British naval operations were imminent and possibly would include an assault landing on the coast.14
On 10 October the Panzer Army issued a summary15 of what was known of the Eighth Army’s strengths and dispositions, an estimate not greatly amended later. Montgomery’s name was known as army commander but the three British corps, 30, 13, and 10, were placed under Ramsden, Lumsden, and Holmes respectively. The general dispositions of 30 Corps were given with accuracy, with 51 (Highland) Division sharing the Australian sector under indoctrination preparatory to taking it over, and 5 instead of 4 Indian Division on the corps’ left flank. In 13 Corps the summary placed 7 Armoured Division, 44 Infantry Division, 1 Greek Brigade and the New Zealand Division, with 1 and 10 Armoured Divisions in reserve to the rear. Some hint of a reorganisation of the British armour had seeped through but was believed to apply only to divisions, for 10 Corps was shown as an infantry formation made up of 50 British and 10 Indian Divisions, 133 Brigade (of 44
Division)16 and 1 Free French Brigade. The summary offered the opinion that the Australian division was the best attacking force and that the New Zealand Division, under strength and ‘in spite of its reverses on 4 September’, might be used in an attack. Concern was expressed over United States intervention, for rumours pointed to the arrival of two American armoured units at Suez, yet prisoners’ statements indicated that there were no formed United States units ready to take the field. The summary concluded that the Eighth Army was as strong, if not stronger, than it was at the beginning of the Axis May offensive, with 3½ armoured divisions and 9 infantry divisions in the forward area, and another armoured and two infantry divisions in the Delta, all at good strength and with a total of 800 to 900 tanks. It is doubtful if this estimate of British strength was intended as a warning, for the Axis commanders knew that their own present strength was considerably higher than their May totals and, though their supply line was longer, they expected to fight a defensive battle. Only in the air did the Axis acknowledge a real inferiority.
The failure to take steps to improve their intelligence system is perhaps understandable in the light of the internal troubles that beset the Axis commanders. In spite of Rommel’s representations at the top level in Germany, the demands of the African theatre were still being met mainly by promises or by token shipments on account. In the last ten days of September an airlift expected to bring the German formations up to strength brought an average of 107 daily, a total of a little over a thousand men, far from enough even to replace those falling sick from the prevalent desert ills. When complaints from General Stumme caused the flow to be increased, each new arrival only emphasised the other logistic difficulties under which the Panzer Army suffered. Food in the German half of the army became progressively worse in the latter part of September and, though two ships were despatched to ease this shortage, they sat, one in Tripoli and the other in Benghazi, until well into October for lack of road transport to shift their cargoes and lack of escort vessels to allow them to be moved to a port nearer the front. Eventually the Italians who, in control of the supply lines, had amassed food stocks in the rear areas were persuaded to hand over a quantity of bread which was flown up to the German troops at the front. It must have been galling to the Germans to have to go cap-in-hand to their junior partners, especially as the Italians were almost offensively magnanimous in helping to feed the hungry German soldiers.
In the first days of October the Panzer Army reported that its petrol situation was precarious and ammunition stocks inadequate. Presumably under pressure from Rommel, the Panzer Army was promised some of Hitler’s ‘new weapons’ and eight multi-barrelled nebelwerfers actually reached Africa; but further shipments were held up on the grounds that they would only add to the ammunition problem. From his rest-cure in Germany, Rommel wrote advising that these eight be held in reserve for their surprise value in an emergency and, as far as is known, they were never fired on the Alamein front.
The state of inadequacy of the whole North African supply organisation made any real improvement impossible without a concerted effort and a calculated risk similar to that made by the Allies in relieving Malta. But while the crises in Malta were obvious, that in North Africa was hidden in a smoke screen of promises and wishful thinking. The Italians, and many Germans, made the excuse that their lack of shipping, aggravated by Allied sea and air operations, limited the amount that could be sent to the Panzer Army. Yet there were available in Europe sufficient supplies of all kinds, as well as ships, escorts and air cover, to make possible several ‘Malta convoys’ in which, in spite of possible losses, enough material would have reached Africa to settle the Panzer Army’s problems for some months at least, As it was, the method of attempting a constant trickle of supply not only gave the Allies the opportunity to impede its constancy but made efficient planning impossible. As with the food cargoes mentioned earlier, ships that reached North Africa safely remained in port for long periods, all the time in danger of air attack, through lack of facilities to transport their cargoes to the forward area. The coastal scow service, intended to relieve road transport of long bulk haulage, operated with disconcerting irregularity owing to lack of provision of sufficient vessels and sufficient crews. The railway on which bulk supplies could be brought close to the front similarly suffered a lack of rolling stock, as well as maintenance crews to repair damage caused by air bombing and washouts on the line after heavy rain. Air lifts with their natural limitations and expense proved merely a palliative: they carried troops without their heavy equipment or petrol at the expense of existing stocks, in both cases throwing more strain on the other supply methods. Motor transport thus was left with the bulk of the work, not only of its normal servicing of the wide front but of carrying bulk supplies from as far to the rear as the port of Tripoli. Of the available trucks held by the Panzer Army, one in every three was invariably under repair owing to shortages of mechanics, spare parts and tyres.
Each weak link in the system created its corresponding problem in other fields. Only by a vigorously executed plan of moving supplies in bulk, and taking the risks involved, could the North African supply and transport problem have been solved. This the Axis was not yet ready to attempt.
By 19 October a slightly improved flow from Europe and strict economy in Africa had brought ammunition stocks to the point which the Panzer Army quartermaster could call adequate, that is, sufficient for a battle not unduly prolonged. Food at this date was sufficient for twenty-one days for the German troops, and probably more for the Italians, but water in the whole forward area was scarce and, what there was, unpalatable since several heavy rainstorms in the first weeks of October had spoilt many of the coastal wells and cisterns upon which the Panzer Army was forced to rely. This of course aggravated the general transport problems as water was needed daily in astronomical gallonage for drinking, cooking, and vehicle radiators; washing, as an increase in the incidence of lice infestation showed among Axis troops during this period, must have taken a back place. With the irregularity of the scow service and the railway, water had to be brought at times by motor transport from as far back as Tobruk. The building up of other stocks in the front area could only be done at the expense of petrol stocks so that, just two days before the battle opened, the Panzer Army had only enough petrol to last for ten to eleven days of normal usage under static conditions of the front.
Thus General Stumme on 22 October commented that his troops were living from hand to mouth, denied the ‘strategic mobility absolutely essential for the existence of the Panzer Army’.17
With this continuing source of worry the new Commander-in-Chief of the Panzer Army allowed himself to be deceived by the thoroughness of Montgomery’s scheme of deception. Although previous experience indicated that the full moon would bring danger, the lack of any overt signs of British preparations seems to have been taken as an indication that the Eighth Army was not yet ready and would follow the pattern set a year previously by opening its campaign in November.
At conferences on the 8th and 14th, Stumme directed the two panzer divisions to prepare plans for counter-attacks, to be submitted to him by the 25th. The records of the two divisions show that planning and some exercises were carried out with no sense of urgency, 15 Panzer Division preparing for relatively simple
counter-attacks on the northern front and 21 Division for a rather more elaborate operation in the nature of a counter-stroke in the south. The latter formation’s diary remarks that its plan in actual battle ‘will probably use up all our present stocks of ammunition and petrol’.18